The Brecht-Weill classic Mack the Knife has recruited some exalted jazz interpreters, most notably Ella Fitzgerald, whose 1960 live version, diverted on to an unintended improvisational track when she forgot the words, is still the most famous. But A Clear Midnight, the Weill tribute by German jazz pianist Julia Hülsmann and singer Theo Bleckmann, doesn’t sound fazed by anybody else’s accounts.
The succinctly expressive Hülsmann with her trio, plus Bleckmann on vocals and UK expat Tom Arthurs on trumpet, devoted one of the final gigs in the 2015 London jazz festival to that repertoire. Mack the Knife, which the remarkable Bleckmann intones at a sepulchral pace, shifting the expected resolving notes to deepen the mood of sinister instability, was even more discomfiting than on the record. So was a comparable pure-pitched fusion between Bleckmann and Arthurs on a haunting Speak Low.
The Ogden Nash schizophrenia poem Who Am I? hurtled along at a surefooted vocal jabber; Hülsmann’s trio delivered a moody but steadily brightening instrumental episode of deft chord melody, terse runs and warm double bass touches from Marc Muellbauer; and they abandoned the predominant atmosphere of menacing serenity for a feverish, blues-powered, scat finale on Weill’s little-known Apple Jack.
Earlier, the music of the British/Danish/Austrian supertrio Phronesis had received the widescreen treatment from Julian Arguelles’ sympathetic arrangements for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with the trio as its rhythm section. They began subdued, but the Phronesis mix of the lyrical and the jazzily serpentine, the eccentric power of drummer Anton Eger, and the class of the Frankfurt soloists brought the later stages to the boil.
The closing weekend saw Russian/Swiss quartet Jazzator’s mix of tune-bending vocals and rhythm-scrambling improv, while Dutch oddballs Tin Men and the Telephone, improvising to live videos of tennis matches and amorous rabbits, positively welcomed the audience keeping their mobile phones full on.